An Iranian online journalist arrested last month for 'undermining national security' now faces a possible charge of manslaughter.

The arrest of Iranian journalist and blogger Sina Motallebi at the end of April (2003) caused a wave of protest from human rights organisations and journalists worldwide.

Mr Motallebi was detained in the Iranian capital Tehran on the charge of undermining national security through 'cultural activities'. He had published articles in defence of other imprisoned journalists, featured interviews with the foreign press on his political news and blog site and published a cartoon that the authorities found offensive.

Mr Motallebi is the first Iranian journalist to be detained primarily for producing web content.

Pedram Moallemian is leading the Iranian Blogging Community in campaigning for Mr Motallebi's release. The San-Diego-based blogger spoke to dotJournalism as news broke that an unnamed judiciary source had announced further charges - all of which are false, according to Mr Moallemian.

"The charges include filming a women's swimming pool, birthday parties and wedding receptions, as well as helping a foreign broadcaster film street prostitutes in Tehran," said Mr Moallemian.

"The judiciary source also claimed that some of prostitutes were ashamed into committing suicide, which means that Sina could face manslaughter charges."

Mr Motallebi is rumoured to have admitted to some of these charges, leading friends and campaigners to fear that he has been threatened during questioning.

Campaigners have organised an online petition which now has more than 3,600 signatures, although concern has grown that the success of the campaign might make interrogation even more difficult for Mr Motallebi.

"His family has chosen not to speak to reporters or publicise his plight anymore. He is still held and only a hearing has been scheduled this far," said Mr Moallemian.

He believes that most of the major US news outlets are deliberately ignoring the story. "Their journalists should be ashamed of this enormous short-sightedness. However, in the era of media conglomerates and giant corporations directing what is covered, I'm not surprised."

Reporters Without Borders, the international campaigners for press freedom, broke the news of Mr Motallebi's arrest on 20 April. He is an established political writer and print journalist who had worked on the reformist newspaper Hayat-e-No until January 2003 when it was closed by the Iranian government. He has also been publishing online for more than five years.

Mr Moallemian said the Iranian authorities have finally confirmed the existence of a blacklist of web sites that they are forcing Iranian ISPs to filter. "Reportedly my weblog is on the list too, which explains a sudden drop of 50 per cent of my 'hits' almost overnight, last month. They have also hinted at the need for 'registering' weblogs and sites, which only means more control," he said.

Mr Moallemian intends to continue to lobby the Iranian government, the UN and human rights groups to battle for Sina's release. "Considering the arena and the nature of his arrest, web-based campaign is the only possible solution. We can't have a street demonstration in front of the judiciary.

"What we can do is to keep the pressure on and ensure the world is watching what happens to him. This is about a lot more than just Sina."

Mr Motallebi is one of 49 'cyber-dissidents' imprisoned around the world, according to Reporters Without Borders.


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